Marc Prüst

Marc Prüst (*1975) ist als fotografischer Berater, Kurator und Dozent tätig. In dieser Funktion gibt er Bücher heraus, kuratiert Ausstellungen, hält und organisiert Workshops und Meisterklassen, lehrt und schreibt über Fotografie und entwickelt für Fotografen Konzepte zur Weiterentwicklung ihrer Arbeit und deren Marketing. Prüst unterrichtet zudem Visual Identity am Spéos Photographic Institute in Paris. Er ist derzeit künstlerischer Direktor des Internationalen Photoreporter Festivals in Saint-Brieuc, Frankreich. In Kooperation mit der Noorderlicht Gallery in Groningen rief Prüst im September 2010 erfolgreich die Northern Lights Masterclass ins Leben, eine einjährige Meisterklasse für Fotojournalismus und sozialdokumentarische Fotografie. Er war zwischen 2010 und 2012 einer von drei Kuratoren für das Fotofestival FotoGrafia in Rom sowie 2010 und 2011 Kreativdirektor der ersten beiden Ausgaben des einzigen Fotofestivals in Nigeria, LagosPhoto. Von 2001 bis 2007 arbeitete er für die World Press Photo Foundation, für die er weltweit Ausstellungen organisierte und ausrichtete. 2005 verantwortete er die Ausstellung und die ausgezeichnete Publikation Things As They Are. Photo Journalism in Context Since 1955, für die er eng mit dem Kurator Christian Caujolle und dem Herausgeber Chris Boot zusammenarbeitete.

Marc Prüst is active as photography consultant, curator, and teacher. In that capacity he edits books, creates exhibitions, teaches, and organizes workshops and master classes, lectures and writes on photography, and advises photographers on how to develop and market their work. Prüst is currently the Artistic Director of the Photoreporter Festival in Saint Brieuc, France. In cooperation with the Noorderlicht Gallery and Festival the Northern Lights, he has successfully launched Masterclass in September 2010, a one year master class for professional photojournalists and social documentary photographers. He was one of three curators for the FotoGrafia festival in Rome during the period 2010–2012 and the creative director of the only photo festival in Nigeria, LagosPhoto. Marc Prüst (1975) worked for the World Press Photo Foundation from 2001–2007, where he organized and installed exhibitions all over the world. In 2005 he was responsible for the exhibition and award winning publication Things As They Are, Photo Journalism in Context since 1955, for which he worked in close cooperation with curator Christian Caujolle and editor Chris Boot. In 2007 he moved on to Agence VU’ where he was mainly responsible for the international cultural activities of the agency. In 2009 he left the agency to launch his career as freelance curator, consultant, and teacher.

But, what is the point?

It’s time for my last blogpost here, and I want to share a last thought about the idea of visual language. But not without expressing my thanks to the wonderful people at Hatje Cantz for allowing me to share my thoughts.

In my writings up to now, I have approached photography on a more theoretical basis, explaining how I see photography, and how certain ideas and concepts follow from that approach. But, is there a point to it, at all? Is there any way that practitioners could benefit at all from these ideas? I would like to believe they can. Besides a better understanding of the medium, I think that photographers can benefit from these ideas to become more successful in their practice.

With this, I do not mean that these ideas will allow anyone to take better pictures, as such, I mean photographers who take this approach might be better in running their business. Whether you want to sell prints, journalistic reportages, corporate portraits, or (self-published) books: one way or another it is important you find people who are interested in your work. But where to find them? How to approach them? And what will you offer them? Indeed, you can create a great book dummy, make a few of them, even: then send it to some people and hope it will end up in The History of the PhotoBook volume 4, 5 or 10.

But, that seems to me a bit like playing the lottery: if it happens, it is great, but it is hardly a strategy to build a career on. Instead, I suggest, and I hope to have made the point clear in my previous posts, that if a photographer has a clear point he or she wants to make, and is able to make that point through the images, finding the audience is not so hard anymore. This way of thinking will allow a photographer to address not the people within their own circle, but actually attract an audience that is concerned by the message that is being delivered.

I don’t want to make a strong point in favor of ‘Photographers as Brands’, here, but the ideas behind branding and marketing can bring important and relevant lessons for many people working in the photography industry. With a situation where it is so easy to take, and share photographs, where the value of a picture is in fact practically zero, how can you make your images seen and noticed? In previous posts I have written about visual language, context, narratives, and I think that  these ideas reflect skills that are even more important for photographers than taking pictures.

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Taking the picture might in fact be only the easiest part of the entire process. If photography is a visual language, the picture is only an expression of an idea. So, you need to have that message, that idea, concept, or proposal that you want to share with others. Then, the context in which that message is presented is highly important in understanding how the message will be received: a Facebook post, a photo book, a print on a gallery wall, will all have a different impact and will be received and understood differently.

How do you get your message across? I personally think that a story is the best way in delivering idea: to use a narrative to relay information about a certain event to somebody else. People love stories. We all read books, go to the movies, and stories have been part of human culture it seems since the invention of language. The story can be told by the the photographs themselves, or sometimes it is the story of the photographer himself who shot the images that is the storytelling element (in which case the idea of branding comes to the foreground again).

So, if a photographer has something interesting and valid to say, manages to find the right context in which to share that message, and is able to narrate that message through a powerful and engaging photographic story: I am quite sure that it is possible to find an audience that is willing to engage with the work. All these skills though are quite different from what we perceive to be the core capabilities of photographers. Surely, the billions of images that are uploaded daily on Facebook and other social media, are taken by people who do not necessarily have these skills, or are interesting in acquiring them. But those images are a reality, and professionals need to be aware of them, and find ways to distinguish their work from the overload of visuals everywhere. What I describe here is one way to handle this reality.

Light Harmonies – A personal review

Some two weeks ago, I received the latest Hatje Cantz publication (one of the perks of blogging here), ‘Light Harmonies, the Rhtyhmograms of Heinrich Heidersberger‘. I was planning to write a review of the first book I would receive for this blog, but somehow this publication has been lying around and staring at me since I unwrapped it.

True enough, it is not your standard photobook, this. Its contents might to some not even be considered ‘photography’. Because, this book contains forms, shapes, build up by white lines on a perfectly black background. “Outfitted not with a camera but instead with an ingenious, room-sized mechanical apparatus to trace the geometry of delicate waves and oscillations, the machine reproduced the elegant orbit of a single ray of light on a photographic plate. These lines create space, dynamic harmonies, symmetries, and a-symmetries.” A selection of this work or rhythmograms as they are called, is presented in this book in five chapters, with titles as Loops, Waves, or Bodies.

As may be clear after my first posts, I am interested in photography as a medium, as a way to transfer information, and therefore I look for that what the photographer has to say about a certain subject. ‘What is the message’ as the recurring element when I look at photography.

But, in this book, there does not seem to be any message, there is no point that the photographer is trying to make. Does that make this book useless, then? Of course not: this book is impressive, powerful, intruiging, and not in the least: very beautiful. But, how to understand this book, then? What to learn from its images?

To follow-up on my previous post on narratives: Here I think we have an example of a catalogue: a collection of the most powerful images. But, with the 5 chapters, and their order, can we see some kind of logical sequence? Let me try to analyze the book and the order of its images and chapters, to see if I can understand this form, and what I could learn from it.

After an in-depth introduction of the work, indicating its significance and a placement in its historical context, the first rhytmogram we see is a complex one: but contexualized by an image on the same spread by the same of photographer (who was known at his time for his architectural work) of a staircase. We are invited to see the similarities in the spatial treatment of both images. Then, the first real chapter starts with ‘Loops’. Circular shapes of white and grey lines that together create spatial elements with a high degree of symmetry.

Chapter 2 is called ‘Shells’. According to the short introductory text each of these shells ‘outlines a subtly intricate complex of continuous interior chambers (…)’. Indeed, these images are not ‘merely’ spatial images, but they seem to be able to encapsulate something, like shells of a sea creature.

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When then seem to move into those shells, the works become more intimate, as suggested by the title of the next chapter ‘Bodies’. The shapes have less symmetry than the ones in the previous chapters, there seems more to explore in each rhythmogram, and somehow whereas the previous chapters held shapes that felt controlled, these ones seem to almost move by themselves.

Chapter four, the ‘Waves’ has fewer images and takes a different approach, with close-ups or crops of some (or is it the same?) rhythmograms. All images so far where neatly placed in the centre of the page, on a fully deep black background, but now they come to you with much more force: with only a black border, the lines are larger, the shape less figurative, and the viewer is invited to imagine from which kind of shape this detail is a part of.

The final chapter ‘Spirals’ is the shortest of them all, with only 6 images, they are perhaps the least surprising of the entire collection. Not less beautiful, but there seems less left to our imagination. As the introduction states, these are the most architectural of all rhythmograms, and that is I think indeed what we see, specially when thinking back to the very first image in the book of the staircase. The images are almost renditions of objects we know from real life: a vase, and of course, a staircase.

Looking at the book as a whole, indeed this is a catalogue, but its sequence, and how the different rhytmograms are contextualized within their chapters, makes a lot of sense to me. As within a classic narrative, I am introduced to the shapes and forms and how to look at them through the first two chapters of Loops and Shells. The Bodies leaves the more controlled environment of the previous chapters, which seems to prepare me for the more challenging and hard to read forms as contained in the Waves chapter. The Spirals is then the end, which allows me to let go, without much demand on my imagination.

This is a demanding book, it took me several readings and quite some time of thinking and analysis. For better or worse, I have shared here my personal reflection on the work. Did I find a clearly defined message? Did I learn anything form it? I can’t say I learned something in an academic sense, but this book taught me to look close, and to experience an intimacy created by white and grey lines on a black background.

Check out this amazing video to get a sense of how the images where created.

 

Narratives: Back to the Future?

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I had the chance to visit the Photography Festival in the Belgium town of Knokke-Heist. The festival has been around for quite some years now, and I used to be an annual visitor up until some 8 years ago, during the years I installed the World Press Photo exhibition for the festival.

So, this year it was a kind of renewed acquintance. The title this year was promising: Haute Africa, and the various artists on show all had works related to fashion, and the fashion industry on the continent. According the festival brochure “Haute Africa provides a unique perspective on the relationship between uses of fashion and political systems, cultural identity, westernization, religion, and gender on the current African continent.”

I don’t want to discuss to what extend you can see all these elements in photographs, as I want to focus this blogpost on something else: the series that were shown at the festival, and if some kind of classification coudl be possible to understand their construction. I am interested in classifying the different stories, as we do the same with any collection of words: they are dictionaries, poems, novels, non fiction, shoppinglists or facebookupdates.

The series on show all around the beachtown of Knokke-Heist are sometimes hard to find, but as this is not a review or critique of the festival, I will not go into these kind of details. Suffice to say the curators found great works, and the festival has a pleasant open atmosphere.

I mention the festival as during my visit I realized something about photographic series. It seems they exist in five formats: Chronologies, Typologies, Portfolios, Catalogues and Narratives. The formats are not related to the contents of the series or the photographs, each of these can be both fiction as well as nonfiction. These five formats are that: formats, they don’t say much about the contents of the work, but about the way they transmit that contents to the viewer.

A Chronology is for example the famous sequence of the building of the Eiffel Tower. A typology in this sense is not limited to the strict series of photographs as created by the Bechers, but extends somewhat to include all sequences of interrelated and very similar images. A portfolio is then a collection of photographs that each exemplify one particular aspect of a certain idea, concept, or situation. A catalogue is similar to a portfolio, but the consideration is different, the selection is a collection of ‘best of’ images: the most famous, the most beautiful images go together and together create the catalogue. A narrative goes one step further, whereas in a catalogue or portfolio each image holds the same weight, in a narrative there is a clear hierarchy between each image: there is a beginning, a middle, and end, and somewhere towards the end there is a climax: and all images and their sequence are in the ‘service’ of this climax, which is in this sense, the most important image, or sequence of images.

When looking at the series presented at the festival in Knokke-Heist, and I have to admit I did not see all the works, but I saw mostly typologies, and portfolios, perhaps one or to catalogues. But, with the possible exception of Héctor Mediavilla’s work on the Sapeurs in Congo, I did not see narratives, neither poetic nor documentary or non-fiction.

Generally, it seems, most photographic series are presented as typologies, portfolios, or catalogues, (I did not see any chronologies in Knokke Heist), and though I have no objection to any format as such, it seems to me that some stories just need to be told in a different way. Also, do I need to see another series of women, men, youngsters in similar poses, printed large, presented as a row of photographs? Has photography, and the way it is able to communicate changed that little over the years? Not all stories are fit to be presented as typologies or catalogues. Not every story can be told as a novel, sometimes you need non-fiction to get the message across. I think narrative as a form, either fiction or non-fiction, similar to the picture essays from the so-called heydey of photojournalism by publications such as LIFE, or LOOK can be a direction for contemporary photography that photographers and curators alike need to explore if they want to help photography as a medium to move forward.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy the festival here, I saw great work like an amazing set of portraits by Jim Naughten, an emotional and powerful series by Jehad Nga, a quircky and playful series by Vivianne Sassen, and several series I had the honor of including myself in the two editions of LagosPhoto I curated, by Mediavilla, Sabelo Mlangeni and Jodi Bieber. If you happen to be near the Belgium coast, it is worth the walk through the town.

For more information on the festival: www.fotofestival.be

 

 

Can photographs convince?

Whereas it seemed sufficient to take interesting or good photographs twenty or thirty years ago, today the situation has fundamentally changed. It is now easier to take good pictures than to write, it is easier to share photographs that to write a story. An iPhone and a 3G network are sufficient for a 4 year old to do the job. We are addicted to calculating the numbers of photographs on facebook, and at the same time we seem to ignore the basic reason for these numbers: the simplicity of the action. The effect is indeed that taking an interesting picture is no longer enough to make any impact. The context in which that picture is seen however, is essential in defining how it will be read.

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I am not really a theorist of photography, I consider myself more a critic, in fact. But one thing that has caught my attention in reading theories, by Sontag, Barthes, and others, is that they seem to focus mainly on the single image. I might be wrong, but when Sontag writes ‘photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deductions, speculation, and fantasy.’ Indeed, she admits that ‘Only that which narrates can make us understand’. It seems to me that she ignores the context in which the image might be seen. For me personally the context in which I see an image practically defines how I will read it. Seen on facebook, a museum, a magazine, a portfolio review with the photographer at the other end of the table, with or without text, the images that surround the photograph, can all steer how my interpretation or understanding of the photograph, and the situation it depicts. An isolated picture indeed cannot explain anything, but a picture is never seen completely isolated. It is obvious that a text can provide context, but photographs in a particular sequence can come a lot closer to a a ‘narration’ than Sontag seems to admit.

Indeed, last year’s discussion of Paolo Pellegrin’s photograph in his series on Rochester of the man carrying the rifle, and how that particular image was understood, was partly due, I think, due to the place it had within the edit of that series.

The idea of context, how the reading of a particular image can be steered by the context in which it is shown, seems to me a subject that deserves more study and understanding.Hamlet,_Shakespeare,_1676_-_0042a

In this sense, also, photography and text are closely related. The order in which you put a certain set of words will decide the meaning of the sentence. But not only that, a brilliant sentence that is buried in a novel with otherwise incomprehensible phrases is not likely to be noticed. An interesting quote by a famous playright on a wall in a museum carries a different weight than a brilliant quote by an unknown poet on his facebook wall. Editing of photobooks is more than sequencing images so that they are visually pleasing, an edit can carry the viewer into the story. Photographs cannnot explain literally, but the order in which images are placed affects how they are read, and how their contents is understood. Photographs in context, I am convinced, can narrate, and therefore convince.